The life-affirming, empowering nature of Mad Max: Fury Road

Far from being a despairing, victim filled movie, Fury Road is arguably one of the most empowering films ever...

(This article contains spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road. If you haven’t seen Fury Road, we suggest what that you stop whatever you’re doing and go and see it right now.)

Mad Max: Fury Road is brilliant. That’s a terrible understatement but, in truth, I think we’ve exhausted all the superlatives since the movie’s release last week. It’s glorious here, basking in the heat of blazing hyperboles that are actually justified and enjoying one of the warmest receptions in living memory. Summer blockbuster season is well and truly here, and Fury Road kicked it up to a higher gear. As things stand, it may be the be the most important movie of 2015 (as Den of Geek’s own Ryan Lambie states in this article.)

People love Fury Road and have embraced it whole-heartedly. After three decades in the wilderness (well, Development Hell and the Babe The Sheep-Pig and Happy Feet franchises), George Miller brought his most iconic character and fictional universe back to the big-screen for a fresh post-apocalyptic punk western picture. And there was much rejoicing and the rejoicing was so loud and vociferous that it even succeeded in drowning out all the explosions and noisy carnage blasting out from the cinema speakers.

Fury Road has found near unanimous approval then, but there are a few who’ve taken exception to this most epic of Ozploitation flicks. The most notable critics are a small-yet-vocal bunch of insecure, attention-seeking men (‘meninists’?) unhappy at the prominence of Charlize Theron and feminist elements in ‘their’ Mad Max movie. Their boycott calls, bitching, moaning and trolling have all quite rightly been condemned and ridiculed.

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I personally pity their small-mindedness and the fact that, if they follow an ill-conceived and ill-informed boycott scheme, they are not going to experience one of the greatest cinematic spectacles of our current era. Then again, if they are keen to cling on to such a desperate victim complex – the spurious fear that masculinity is under attack and that people are ruining ‘their thing’ – then maybe Fury Road isn’t the film for them. This movie takes the notion of victimhood and runs it over. Then it runs it over again and what’s more it’s running it over in a seventy-eight foot-long, eighteen-wheeler War Rig and that thing is cranking on nitro.

Mad Max: Fury Road is many things, but the thing that resonates with me most personally is its empowering philosophy. Having thought deeply about this artistic action masterpiece, I’ve realised that it has profound philosophical power and that it is, in fact, one of the most inspiring motion pictures in living memory.

“I live! I die! I live again!”

Proactive positivity and defiant never-say-die determination are encoded into the bones and DNA of this beast. Right from the beginning and up to the final realisation of the fever dream in actuality, Fury Road has been characterised by such spirit and it’s quite astounding when you take stock and acknowledge how Miller and his cohorts have willed this film into being in spite of all the adversity.

Studio doubts, the 9/11 attacks, Mel Gibson’s personal troubles and fall from popular favour, economic recessions and difficult shooting conditions in the Namibian desert all be damned. The fourth Mad Max movie was made and made it to screen regardless of the delays and stumbling blocks – even if we had to world had to wait a little longer as the powers-that-be prolonged the release date for well over a year.

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As off-screen, so it is likewise on-screen as the in-world universe and the material itself exemplifies that affirmative, can-do attitude. And it does it in confident style with grandiose cinematic artistry, incredible practical effects and pure, unadulterated creative zest without compromise. The innate drive isn’t just a powerful force pushing the film production and then the plot and the aesthetic features, though. Fury Road‘s approach – the way it is, its essential nature – is something ideological, philosophical and spiritual.

“Feels like hope.”

Breaking it down, let’s first consider the vision of the future that Mad Max presents us and that has evolved and been enhanced to an insane extreme in Fury Road. At the opening, our man Max states “My world is fire. And blood.” He should probably have added: “And disease, and drought, and destitution, and depravity, and degeneration, and despotism, and derangement on such a scale that ‘Mad’ seems far too mild a label”.

Thankfully, Max is a laconic and practical hero who doesn’t waste words (or anything) in a wasteland age of scarcity. Plus, we don’t need dialogue spelling everything out because the images reveal the whole picture – ‘show don’t tell’ being the narrative principle underpinning this visceral road movie constructed on graphic novel-style storyboards.

The picture painted is an appalling and frighteningly awesome one. Of all conceivable futures, Fury Road is one of the most nightmarish. In the wake of oil wars and water wars, Earth is an irradiated great emptiness. Civilisation has collapsed and all that’s left in its place are bands of disparate barbarian tribes eking out grim existence in the desertlands, scrapping for what precious resources remain.

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Our gaze is chiefly centred on the Citadel dominated by Immortan Joe’s cult of personality. There is fresh water (erm, “aqua-cola”), some greenery and comfortable living here but it’s all controlled by that tyrant Joe and he’s not keen on sharing with the mass of brainwashed subjects and slaves. Most humans here are deformed, diseased or just straight-up grotesque to obscene proportions.

Yet, though the vision is horrific (and hideous), viewers aren’t emerging from Fury Road with the depressed feelings that are common when it comes to dystopian fiction. What’s more, it’s not just because the movie is dazzlingly colourful in contrast to the grey-and-beige standard of the post-apocalyptic genre, or because the car chase sequences are so invigorating and uplifting (though, of course, they help). I reckon that the key reasons we come away smiling are those attitudinal ones – Mad Max: Fury Road refuses to be downbeat and its protagonists refuse to be beaten down.

“Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!”

In this world, no one is holding on hard to victimhood, playing a victim or allowing themselves to be defined by their suffering and misfortunes. The world has gone to hell and most of the characters are wronged, oppressed and traumatised (physically and mentally), but there’s little-to-no despondency. What’s left of humanity isn’t going to give up and dwell in the depths of despair – they’re too hellbent on moving forward, pursuing whatever goal gives their life purpose or doing whatever necessary to survive (see Max, Furiosa, the Five Wives and the Vulvani).

When survival seems impossible, they then completely commit to a ‘live for the moment’ credo (see the Nux and his fellow War Boys as the most prominent examples), and in this post-apocalyptic milieu such a philosophy makes sense. Altogether, I survey this so-called wasteland and contemplate the mindsets of its figures and come away inspired. Our own reality isn’t actually so far removed from the outlandish world conceived by Miller and co. We can learn a lot from the heroes of Fury Road and our own lives will surely be enriched if we approach them with the gumption and enlightened attitude of these screen icons.

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Let’s start with our nominal hero – Max Rockatansky, this re-incarnation being the sublime Tom Hardy (one of the best in the business when it comes to sheer presence, the delivery of weighty words and the careful balance of brooding subtlety and overt insanity). Once upon a time he was “a cop searching for a righteous cause” but all the loss and horror has driven him mad (though he’s got a point asking whether it’s he or everyone else who’s more crazy) . Thus, sayeth the Road Warrior, “my world is reduced to a single instinct: survive.”

Max’s great resilience and resolve to survive never wavers. This dude abides thanks to that primal will, no matter what happens to him, no matter what is put in his way. Witness – they total his Interceptor and then steal said automobile; they cut off his hair; they tattoo his organ donation details on his back as if he’s a piece of meat; they keep him prisoner; they use him as a blood-bank; they muzzle him with a face-grill; they strap him up on the front of a car and drive him into a Biblical duststorm; and the beatings and punitive pinballing escapades just carry on and on.

Max doesn’t care, though. He keeps on going, fighting to survive, successfully escaping every imprisonment and fatal entanglement. Rockatansky’s resourcefulness and wild animal (super)nature ensure that he overcomes all the ordeals and there is absolutely never any question of giving up. These qualities endear him to Furiosa and the Wives who find in him a useful, kindred spirit. Those women become a momentary righteous cause for Max, and their convergence is a perfect proactive cocktail. (And that combination packs a hell of a punch, and then some.)

“At least that way we’ll be able to… together… come across some kind of redemption.”

As it is with Max, so it is with the female protagonists who dominate and own Fury Road. Each of them has a hard and tragic (unseen) backstory – Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is an amputee with obvious psychological scars and the five wives have been held captive as breeders by the abhorrent Immortan Joe. It really doesn’t bear thinking about.

Yet these women aren’t defined by their hardships and – through force of narrative and force of personality – at no point do they exist as weak creatures to pity and feel sorry for. The audience never views them as victims because they aren’t and because they refuse to be. They are all powerful protagonists of intelligence (in terms of emotional intelligence, cunning and wit) with autonomous agency. These are the ‘strong female characters’ of action cinema that we need and deserve and Fury Road has rightly been hailed as a standard bearer to follow in this regard.

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Getting back into the nitty gritty of the narrative, these characters cast off all the shackles – the tangible metal ones and the ideological ones – and operate as proactive masters of their own destiny (even if reality has conspired to make them anything but). Led by Furiosa and rallying round the “We are not things!” mantra, they take action and ride off towards liberated self-determination. Like Max, they fight off anyone and anything that threatens to prevent their passage or freedom.

There’s only one single moment of doubt and the rest of the group quickly convince Cheedo the Fragile that giving up is not what they’re about. Fragile later feigns surrender in the climactic battle as a strategy to distract Rictus Erectus and get to a position where she can help Furiosa reach (and kill) Immortan Joe. That’s just one act among the many exemplifying the survivalist spirit and proactive willpower of these women. Join them with the Vulvani (a.k.a. the Many Mothers) and we’ve got even more assured female empowerment.

The women of Fury Road exist on their own terms and set those terms. Thinking on purposes, there are progressive maternal instincts in play – see their guiding compassion, the wives’ desire to find a better world for their unborn babies and the Keeper of the Seeds’ committed faith that one day there’ll be fresh growth on this rotten Earth.

Then there’s Furiosa explicitly expressing the objective of ‘redemption’, and that’s a poignant word worth noting. Redemption is different from ‘revenge’ – an achievement that brings emotional closure but that ultimately comes from a place of victimhood. ‘Redemption’ is something soul-fulfilling – salvation and self-liberation.

Redemption is a righteous cause, and even though the idealised “Green Place” proves to be a false hope, Furiosa and the party get over the disappointment, adapt and move on to survive and thrive as free human beings, as best as they can. Using what they have, sticking to their guns and never giving up hope they ultimately realise redemption (and manage to destroy Joe and his allies and liberate the wretched masses of the Citadel from tyranny in the process).

“If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on a fury road!”

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That brings me to those deranged denizens of the Citadel, for you may be questioning how the War Boys could possibly be considered as anything but victims. Sure, it’s true that they are diseased cannon (car?) fodder in service of an autocrat and a crackpot kamikaze cult that maniacally kitbashes Norse mythology onto a V8 engine. Still, I can’t help but feel enlightened positivity radiating from these half-lifers and Nicholas Hoult’s Nux is an exemplary inspirational figure.

When we first meet Nux he’s so weak that he’s on an IV drip and hooked up to Max because he needs a top-up of some “high-octane blood”. Regardless, he eagerly picks up his steering wheel and drags his “blood-bag” along with him to join the chase. “If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on a fury road!” he cries and that’s Nux in a nutshell – doomed, but deadset on going out going out with a bang, a silver smile on his pasty face and a place in Valhalla secured thanks to his epic (erm, “shiny”) final acts.

It’s true that the tumours on his windpipe might kill him, but Nux has nicknamed these “mates” Larry and Barry and drawn smiley faces on them. Even when Immortan Joe dismisses him as “mediocre” he isn’t down for too long because he finds a fresh purpose in love for Capable and he sacrifices himself for her and his newfound friends. So comes Nux’s anticipated glorious apotheosis, marked by the ‘Witness’ salute as he heads off to join the heroes of Valhalla who are awaiting him.

Wide-eyed and inspired, Nux looks at every moment as a euphoric opportunity and in the midst of a decayed dystopian environment swept by duststorms and carnage he cries “Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!” His brethren are of similar outlooks, all of them enjoying living in the moment and feeling the thrill of both the chase and their spiritual fervour. Just look at how blissed out and how they manage to live it up despite of it all – all the various riders, the lancers, the poinging polecats and the Doof Warrior who’s rockin’ out the wasteland with a flamethrower guitar on bungee straps. Life in the post-apocalyptic wasteland is brutal, barbaric and short but all of these wretches are having fun anyway.

Honestly, since that fateful first screening of Mad Max: Fury Road I haven’t felt downbeat at all or had any sad moments of self-pity. It was like a crossbow bolt to my brain for reasons beyond the simple fact that it’s a brilliant film (understatement). This movie is a masterpiece of empowerment and to watch it is to feel an inspiring psychic surge.

Fury Road isn’t just a startling and unique sci-fi fantasy feature offering spectacle entertainment as an escapist diversion – Fury Road is an uplifting shot of positive, proactive attitude and it’s a life-affirming experience. This action cinema revelation is driving us towards hope, enlightenment and redemption. Watch again, witness.

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